Staff at NYC hospital where nurse died will finally get coronavirus tests

A New York hospital where some staffers said they could not get coronavirus tests even after a nurse died of the disease has now told workers that starting Tuesday it will provide tests to all employees who have developed symptoms consistent with COVID-19, according to an email obtained by NBC News.

“Starting on Tuesday, April 7, if you develop symptoms consistent with COVID-19, we would like to test you for this viral infection using the PCR test with a nasopharyngeal swab within a few days of the onset of your symptoms,” said the Saturday email from Senior Vice President Vicki R. LoPachin to all staffers of the New York City area’s Mount Sinai hospital network. “This will provide guidance to you and to Employee Health Services regarding your clinical status and return to work.”

“If you were symptomatic prior to April 7, we would like to test you for COVID-19 infection using the serum antibody test. This will provide guidance to you on whether you did have COVID-19 infection as well as whether you are a candidate to provide a plasma donation to help others.”

The email came after queries to the network from NBC News on whether it planned to make tests available to staffers at Mount Sinai West, a hospital on Manhattan’s West Side, and a Friday protest by staffers from various Mount Sinai hospitals that included demands for testing. The email said staffers would receive more information on Monday.

A spokesperson for the Mount Sinai hospitals did not respond to requests for comment about the network’s testing policy for employees and its decision to make tests available starting Tuesday.

Kious Kelly, a nurse at Mount Sinai West Hospital in New York, died after contracting coronavirus on March 24, 2020.Marya Sherron / via AP

Kious Kelly, an assistant nurse manager on a cardiac observation unit at Mount Sinai West, died of coronavirus on March 24. At least two Mount Sinai West employees who worked in his unit, known as 10B, and one nurse who did not, have tested positive for COVID-19 infection, according to interviews with two of the sick employees and the daughter of the third.

According to interviews with staff, group texts, and a list provided by a nurse, other workers in the unit have also tested positive, but NBC News was not able to confirm those illnesses.

Some employees in Kelly’s unit, who spoke to NBC News under condition of anonymity, said earlier this week that even in the wake of his death, nurses and other staff in the unit and across Mount Sinai West had not been able to access testing at their own hospital. They also said that, despite improvements, they were still not being supplied with the personal protective equipment (PPE) they deem adequate to keep them safe from exposure.

“The way management has been managing this crisis showed us that infectious disease protocol or staffing safety is not their concern,” said one nurse on the unit.

Echoing the concerns of nurses and physicians across the country, many in unit 10B and across the hospital had told NBC News they have been forced to seek testing offsite, including at urgent care clinics.

Diana Torres, a registered nurse who works in the rehabilitation unit at Mount Sinai West, said that knowing who on staff is positive allows healthcare workers to “take the necessary precautions to avoid exposing more people or exposing our loved ones.”

Mount Sinai Health Systems would not confirm to NBC News how many of its employees at New York-area hospitals, including staff from Mount Sinai West’s unit 10B, have tested positive for COVID-19.

On Friday morning, more than a dozen staff gathered in front of the Mount Sinai hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to protest what they said were continued shortages of PPE, and to demand standardized infection control and isolation protocol, along with free testing for exposed or symptomatic healthcare workers.

“Keeping our staff and patients safe is our absolute number one mission right now and, in addition to the resources provided by the City, State and federal government, we are continuing to move heaven and earth to ensure our healthcare staff have access to proper PPE,” said Jason Kaplan, a spokesperson for Mount Sinai, in a statement about the protest sent to NBC News on Friday. “We understand the fear and concerns and we will continue to do everything possible to protect our heroes on the frontlines. We will not stop until this crisis is over.”

Kelly helped manage the team on 10B, and was there on March 10 when the team received its first COVID-19 patient. The unit typically takes patients who make it out of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), but still need to be closely monitored.

One nurse, who agreed to speak anonymously, began to experience symptoms a few days after treating that patient. On March 13, the nurse called Mount Sinai’s employee health hotline and described the symptoms: shortness of breath, fever, and an unrelenting, dry cough.

“They told me to just manage the symptoms at home because I cannot be tested,” the nurse said.

The nurse’s primary care physician referred the nurse to the state COVID hotline. The nurse said there was a two-hour wait to speak to someone, only to be told that no testing site could be located. Luckily, the nurse was able to get tested that evening, thanks to a friend who worked in the emergency department at Mount Sinai’s flagship hospital.

“If I did not make my own move to call my primary care provider and go to the emergency room, I don’t know what would happen to me,” the nurse said.

After seven days of managing symptoms at home and not improving, a primary care doctor prescribed new treatment medication: hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, and zinc.

“I think that really pulled me through to be back again to becoming better because without it I would still be huffing and puffing,” the nurse said.

Other healthcare workers on unit 10B and beyond said that experience was common. Many told NBC News they had not been able to receive testing at the hospital, despite developing symptoms or being directly exposed to the virus. Many also say that they were told testing remained limited at the hospital, and was being reserved for patients experiencing acute respiratory syndrome.

Torres said that she sought testing after being exposed to a COVID-positive patient from unit 10B. She said she was told that she did not qualify.

She has had no symptoms, but has been worried about exposing her family to the virus.

The lack of early and widespread testing of patients for coronavirus has impacted healthcare workers around the country, like those in unit 10B, who were exposed to potential coronavirus carriers without adequate PPE.

On March 14, a patient who had been previously discharged came back to unit 10B with a fever and other symptoms associated with COVID-19. As more than 30 nurses and techs cared for and were exposed to the patient, Mount Sinai’s medical director of infectious disease emailed nursing managers with updated PPE recommendations.

In order to facilitate conservation of N-95 masks, the email said, they were now “only to be worn for aerosol-generating procedures.”

When assistant nursing manager Kious Kelly delivered this message to unit 10B during a March 15 meeting, said a nurse who attended the meeting, a few nurses started to cry. Others were angry.

“We know how poorly prepared we are,” said the nurse. “We know this is a suicide mission.”

That day was the last time Kelly was seen at work. He was admitted to the ICU two days later.

As the days wore on, staffers said nurses were told to reuse gowns, ration N-95 masks, and wear surgical masks, which do not offer the same level of protection against the virus, to work in rooms housing COVID-positive patients.

PPE shortages continued, according to staffers. On the evening shift of March 21, nurses in unit 10B were unable to find any blue gowns, and texted colleagues a photo of themselves wearing trash bags. That photo went viral.

Kelly, who died on March 24, suffered from severe asthma, said his sister, Marya Sherron. She has questioned whether his death could have been prevented if he were given adequate PPE.

Since then, healthcare workers say, PPE supplies have been shored up. Staff haven’t had to reuse gowns, and N-95 masks are in greater supply. But workers say that they still don’t have access to full PPE, including full hazmat or “bunny” suits.

“I want to look like I’m going to Mars, it’s that simple,” said Torres. “If I don’t look like that then I’m not protected.”

A spokesperson for the Mount Sinai hospitals did not respond to a request for comment about the March 14 email or the availability of PPE to employees.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.